What is a territorial dispute?

A territorial dispute is a disagreement between two or more States about which State exercises sovereignty over a certain part of territory. Territorial disputes fall within two different categories. Certain territorial disputes concern the entirety of the territory of a State thus resulting in a challenge to that State’s existence. Other territorial disputes only affect part of one or more States’ territory and concern the placement of one or more boundaries that delimit the territory over which each State exercises sovereignty. International law sets out the rules governing the control and transfer of territory.

What are the effects of territorial disputes?

Territorial disputes frequently result in diplomatic, economic and military tensions between two or more States. Territorial disputes often bring about political instability and uncertainty in respect of which State controls and exercises authority over the disputed territory. Historically, territorial disputes have led on many occasions to armed conflicts. However, many territorial disputes have been eventually solved amicably either by means of negotiation or through a dispute settlement mechanism. The former method consists of the conclusion of a boundary treaty setting out the States’ agreement on how to delimit their territories. The latter often involves the binding decision of a dispute settlement body, such as the International Court of Justice or an arbitral tribunal, on how to allocate the disputed territory to the disputing States.

Why do territorial disputes happen?

Territorial disputes can arise in different ways. For example, a territorial dispute can be triggered by a State’s attempt to conquest territory belonging to another State. Another example is the case of an entity seeking independence from a State. Such an entity could, for instance, invoke its population’s right to self-determination to argue that it constitutes a new independent State exercising sovereignty over the territory in which said population lives.

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